by Marie Gaglione
I don’t know where exactly the blame lies for the United States’ relationship with work. Early disciples of capitalism, probably, or the first few factory owners of the industrial revolution. I could (and readily would) fill this essay pointing fingers at monopolists and wall-streeters and Reagan-era plutomaniacs, but it wouldn’t stop inquiring minds from demanding twenty-year plans from children. Every kid gets asked, and everyone asks it, but we don’t talk about what we’re really communicating. What do you want to be when you grow up? The language of it carries its own implication. Adults with even the very best intentions are telling the youth of this country that what you do is who you are. Your work will define you; it’s what you will be.
When I was very little, I wanted to be an astronaut, a firefighter, or a hairdresser. They were the most glamorous jobs I could fathom with what I imagined to be comparable levels of danger involved (here I spare the reader a lengthy digression on the psychology of fearing blowdryers). It wasn’t about the work of the position; I don’t remember ever contemplating the daily lives of these people. It was an idea of the kind of person I wanted to be. Bold and powerful and exciting. But because what we do and who we are get braided together from such a young age, I floundered around with my answers as I grew up. And it’s weird because you get to college and they reinforce what you’ve heard forever: choose wisely, this will define you. Your major will determine what you do and who you become for the rest of your life. It’s no wonder so many undergrads are in a state of perpetual panic.
The reason I situate this work-self dynamic nationally is because I can speak best to what I know, and also because I lived for a few months in Spain and witnessed every day a dramatic difference in the countenances of passers-by. Their brows were unfurrowed, their steps unhurried, their leisure unencumbered. Coffee shops are for having a coffee and owners are unafraid to dismiss laptopped loiterers. It isn’t in the culture. For most of human history we have worked to live; today, at least in the United States, we live to work. This is born from America’s true love: the almighty dollar. We tell impressionable minds that what they do is who they are and that what they make is what they’re worth. The latter idea is the ugly face of capitalism; it’s sinister and pervasive, this connection between work, money, and worth. And it’s why this essay that was meant to be about my personal relationship with work has a disproportionately long introduction. I can’t talk about work without addressing the bizarre and at times nefarious position it holds in our cultural consciousness.
I understand how my lack of desire for a nine to five paired with the above diatribe aimed at the churning out of a workforce can indicate an idealistic or even slothful disposition. This isn’t the case. Work is necessary and can be a source of fulfillment for many people. There’s always going to be doctors with callings and teachers who changed lives; but professional positions and official career tracks aren’t for everyone. When work is a national commodity, hierarchies naturally emerge. Some jobs carry more esteem than others and those who earn bigger paychecks also earn status and power. Our system encourages conformity and pursuing money over passion. And that, finally, is my point. I know far too many people who had hobbies and interests and passions that became secondary and then eventually unimportant in the face of a well-paying and respectable job.
My decision to stay in Charlottesville and work as a waitress for the next year is my poor mother’s worst nightmare. All that school wasted because I’m not applying for internships or grad schools or fixed-pay career-worthy employments. Selling all my belongings and hopping in a van is the last life projection she wants to hear from her daughter after getting off a twelve hour work day, but we both try. We keep calling and answering and disagreeing, but the effort and love behind the passionate clashing is evident and enough to maintain a channel of communication.
Sometimes I read my mom a poem on these phone calls. She always listens, often offers unsolicited advice, and usually ends the call by saying she is proud of me. I tell her, good. Remember these moments. Save them for when I write something that displeases you; for when I am bumming it on an acquaintance’s couch; for when you don’t hear from me for months. Because writing is my work. I wrote at age seven when my parents were screaming; at eight when my dad got remarried; at eleven when my mom did; at thirteen when my dad got divorced; at fifteen when he ended up in the hospital; at seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, as my grandparents died and I broke off an engagement and at twenty when my dad’s house was raided by the DEA; at twenty-one when he went to prison; and now, at twenty-two, as I am only a few months graduated and navigating, at long last, this “real world” everyone’s been telling me about.
I’m confronted with my nonconformity with every conversation. My former classmates have moved to DC and landed jobs working for Capital One and I am preparing to move my things across the street and continue serving the wealthy elite of Charlottesville through gilded fine dining. But free time during the day that was once spent in class I now have to hone my craft. I have no plans to assimilate; just a past to move on from and a future to fill in and time, finally, to write.